Musings on safety in the face of dangerous weather

Just hours ago, in his blog Meteorological Musings, Mike Smith posted a comment on the hailstorm that hit Omaha’s Eppley field last evening. He links to an interesting video of the hail, taken by a passenger on a fully-loaded plane out on a taxiway at the height of the storm, which damaged seven aircraft and closed the airport for three hours. Mike expects losses to run into the tens of millions of dollars.

And that for a mid-size airport! Losses can be, and have been, far worse. In May of 1995, a hailstorm hit Dallas-Fort Worth Airport as American Airlines was undergoing a hub operation. American Airlines cancelled more than 300 flights out of DFW the very next day, and another 200 flights the day following. More than 60 aircraft were damaged to the point they had to be inspected and/or repaired. Some planes were out of service for weeks. A subsidiary, American Eagle, experienced similar damage to equipment. Losses for the event as a whole were put in the range of a few billion dollars.

But that wasn’t what really bothers Mike. His paramount concern is safety. He expressed strong concerns about the threats to the safety of the aviation community and the traveling public. He cites a failure to make fullest use of available information on tornadoes, hail, and other risks – to get that information into the local aviation environment that is both under threat and where operational decisions are being made – where it might do some real good.

Note that this is a nearly universal challenge posed by weather hazards. Our technology and our science have advanced to the point where “we” – that is the meteorological professional community, comprising operational forecasters in both government agencies and private-sector firms – can see these events coming. As much as a few days ahead of time, we can spot areas of the country at growing risk to such violent weather extremes. Then, as the event continues to develop, the science and technology can pinpoint the areas of risk ever more precisely.

But it is a far cry from having those insights at some centralized location, or even a local NWS forecast office or private-sector forecast office, and getting that information to a client or customer (in the case of private-sector services) or to the public (as in the case of many of those same private-sector firms, the broadcast media, and the National Weather Service) when they are in harm’s way. When those warnings and forecasts leave the meteorological environment and enter the more chaotic, information-rich, environment of the sector-by-sector users (aviation to be sure, but also rail and other forms of transportation; agribusiness, energy, emergency managers, water-resource managers and many others) and the general public, the weather warnings all too often get lost in the general shuffle. In the work environment, weather information competes with economic concerns, scheduling imperatives, and the like. As for the general public, they (we) are out there running errands, picking up kids, making a doctor’s appointment, at a restaurant. We – all of us – are preoccupied, distracted, stressed. Even at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, we’re thinking more about the kids, or Sugarland, or the folks next to us, or grabbing a last bite to eat than we are about the darkening sky. And we’re maybe translating that darkening sky into our need for that foldable poncho versus the frailty of that stage towering above us. To know when and where weather information is critical, not just useful; to know how to break through to people in harm’s way – remains a problem for social scientists and others.

In the meantime, Mike and others like Mike in both the private- and public weather sectors remain focused on this challenge.

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